A Plundered Province Revisited
The Colonial Status—Past and Present—of the Great American West
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
The study at least had the virtues of honesty about intentions and of some effort at coordination. But the coal and energy companies had rejected the plan even before it appeared, and were making their own plans. By 1973 it was known, for example, that Consolidation Coal Company planned an $11.5 million strip mine in the Bull Mountains of east-central Montana, under a lease promising reclamation protected by a thousand-dollar bond; Pacific Power and Light and Idaho Power planned a $300 million, 1,500-megawatt Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs, Wyoming; Pacific Power & Light a 750-megawatt plant at Glenrock on the North Platte River; Reynolds Metals a $2.5 billion uranium enrichment plant near Buffalo, Wyoming, that would have required millions of kilowatts of power, to be supplied by a strip mine at the site (the company later abandoned the idea). Even more enormous projects were discussed down the line, coal liquefaction and gasification plants far more demanding of coal and precious water than mine-mouth power plants would be.
The study galvanized public protest. Montana especially, fortuitously relieved of the burden of Company domination, responded to the threat of renewed exploitation with remarkable energy and to extraordinary effect.
Disaster struck Anaconda Copper at the end of the 1960’s: Chile nationalized the Company’s $350 million copper holdings there. Scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, Anaconda no longer had time to run its “personal fief.” Montanans called, by referendum, for a new constitutional convention, its delegates assembled only from among citizens who had never held state elective office, and the new constitution was installed in 1972. It abandoned the net proceeds tax and left taxation up to the legislature; and the legislature, after 1972, was largely elected from other than Company men. By 1975 a coalition of ranchers, activists, and concerned citizens managed to legislate a tax on coal amounting to 30 per cent of its dollar value, the highest such tax in the United States. Half the revenue would be reserved in a trust fund for the none-too-distant time when the coal will be gone. Unlike leasing or pollution-control regulations, the gross value tax is one the federal government can’t alter or void, and it has slowed the development of strip mines in Montana. Wyoming, however, has welcomed them.
Stripping the West of its coal has not been, nor will it soon be, the nation’s only alternative to energy shortages. The East has plenty of coal of its own: calculated by energy value rather than simply by weight, 55 per cent of the United States’ coal reserves lie east of the Mississippi. Western coal is relatively low-sulfur—though whether it is consistently as low-sulfur as the utilities claim is currently in dispute—but more must be burned to generate an equivalent amount of heat, because Western coal has a higher water and ash content, and it may thus pollute more than higher-sulfur Eastern coals.
The more likely reasons, in fact, for the rush to Western coal are reasons of convenience and of profit. It takes two hundred men to mine a million tons of coal a year in Eastern deep mines; it takes ten men to mine the same amount from a strip mine in the West. Safety costs less in surface mines; so does health protection. The coal itself is cheaper—it is effectively government subsidized by -the low cost of federal leases—and despite transportation costs, Western coal undercuts Eastern coal all the way to West Virginia. And in many states, utilities are allowed to pass on transportation costs directly to consumers as a “fuel-adjustment factor,” further reducing costs.
Mine-mouth power generation solves another problem. It sends clean electricity to urban centers and leaves the pollution behind for the West to deal with as best it can. But there is danger to the nation, and ultimately greater cost, in developing Western coal at the expense of Eastern. Deep mines can’t simply be shut down and left unworked and then reopened: they fill up with water. Restoring them to function thirty years hence, when strippable Western reserves are expected to be exhausted, will cost as much as it did to dig them in the first place. Nor are thousands of out-of-work Appalachian miners likely to wait thirty years for mining jobs. They will disappear to other jobs; when the mines are needed again, there won’t be any miners to man them.
The pollution Westerners see, and fear, is not only air pollution. They fear as well for their scarce water supplies, for the future productivity of their land, for the quality of their lives. Boom towns have always been squalid places; oil and coal and power-plant boom towns are no less so today. A recent study of one such town found a 400 per cent increase in crime, a divorce rate of more than 50 per cent, a dramatic increase in mental breakdowns and suicides. Annual job turnover stood at 150 per cent. Schools could not absorb the influx of workers’ children. Half the town lived in mobile homes crowded along muddy, unpaved streets. Montana’s new coal tax, once it filters down to counties and towns, should help to ease conditions, but Montana is an exception.